In northern Ukraine, Canadian-donated armoured vehicles are a key line of defence
Ukrainian border soldiers have a new Canadian ride — and they like it
If Russian troops launch a renewed attack on Ukraine from the north, chances are the first opposition they'll run into is a Ukrainian soldier fighting them off in an armoured vehicle donated by Canada.
Among the key components of Canada's military aid package to Ukraine are Senator armoured personnel carriers built by Roshel Defence Solutions, of Mississauga, Ont.
The Trudeau government initially donated eight "Senators" in May. Defence Minister Anita Anand went to Kyiv Wednesday to announce a major expansion of the program, with a further 200 vehicles to follow.
"The vehicles offer state-of-the-art, best-in-class technology, and weapons can easily be mounted on them," Anand told a Kyiv news conference.
WATCH: Canada donates 200 armoured vehicles:
The $90 million cost is included as part of $500 million in Canadian military aid that was announced in the fall.
In recent weeks, Ukraine's military has been pressing the first of the Canadian-donated "Senators" into service in strategically key regions, including along the northern border with Belarus.
Russia's initial invasion last February against cities such as Chernihiv struck south from Belarus, and right now Russian President Vladimir Putin's forces are again conducting joint operations with the Belarussian army and airforce.
While Western military officials say they do not believe another Russian offensive will come from that direction, Ukraine's military has improved its defences and is arming its soldiers with more powerful Western-made weapons — including Senators.
"You feel safe in them," said Ukrainian border soldier Vladyslav Piun, as he sat in the driver's seat and gunned the engine, speeding off down a rough rural road just a few kilometres from Ukraine's frontier.
"It drives quickly so you can escape quickly from the battlefield — and also your people can open fire (through a hatch at the top)."
Other countries also providing Senators
A CBC News crew was invited by Ukraine's border patrol, which is a branch of the military, to visit one of the units that just received a new Senator two weeks ago.
In addition to the Canadian donations, Ukraine has purchased dozens of Senators on its own and other nations have provided them as well.
"I think it's amazing," said the commander of the squad, Andriy Solomianyi.
He said until the Senators arrived, his team was using older, flimsier vehicles with metal frames that couldn't stop a bullet.
"This has armour," he said. "It is manoeuvrable, it gains speed very fast and will take us quickly to the places we needed and to perform evacuations if we will need to on the battlefield."
WATCH | An inside look at the armoured vehicles donated by Canada:
One video clip posted recently on social media showed a Senator being used to transport Ukrainian prisoners exchanged with the Russians.
Another unverifiable video appears to show a Senator after it was damaged from a nearby hit from a Russian artillery shell. The vehicle had shrapnel damage on its body and its ballistic glass was shattered but nothing appeared to have penetrated the passenger cabin.
"I think Canada and any other country that helps Ukraine should be proud of themselves," said Solomianyi.
"A grain of sand can turn into a sand avalanche," he said, suggesting the flow of Western weapons and missile systems, which started as a trickle, has picked up dramatically in recent weeks and could be the decisive factor in an eventual Ukrainian victory.
$1B in military assistance
Canada has donated more than $1 billion in military assistance to Ukraine since Russia's invasion almost a year ago, including a NASAMS Surface to Air Missile System, anti-tank weapons, M777 Howitzers and ammunition.
As he sat next to Anand at the news conference Wednesday, Ukraine's Defence Minister thanked Canada for all of its contributions, including the new armoured personnel carriers (APCs).
"I would like to express the biggest gratitude to the people of Canada, to the government of Canada and directly Ms. Anand, because this package of assistance, which was already proclaimed, is extremely important for us," said Oleksii Reznikov.
But while the APCs fill an important gap in Ukraine's needs, they may not be the most urgent.
Reznikov reiterated again that Ukraine wants NATO countries to give the country their heavy tanks to drive Russian forces out of the areas they now occupy.
Canada has more than 80 Leopard 2 tanks — but Anand was non-committal about plans for them. Germany, which manufactures the Leopard, has to sign off on any transfers and so far has refused.
The issue is expected to be a central part of discussions at a key meeting involving Ukraine, NATO countries and other donor nations Friday in Germany.
Nonetheless, in an interview with CBC News earlier this week, Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba touted the value of Canada's armoured car donations for both countries.
"When you pay a company producing this, you reinvest money into the Canadian economy — and our army needs more and more armoured vehicles, especially now as we build up our reserves to ensure mobility and protection for our forces," said Kuleba.
Roshel's website says the company first started producing the Senator in 2018 and they have been sold to police, military and security forces around the world.
The company has also hired dozens of Ukrainian immigrants and refugees to help manufacture the vehicles and deal with the extra orders for Ukraine, said the CEO, Roman Shimonov.
"We build our vehicles in industry-record time, producing four vehicles a day, which helps save lives of military personnel and civilians," he wrote CBC News in an email.
The Senator APC that CBC News travelled in appeared to be the basic model — there was room for 10 passengers but no added turret, weapons or special custom features, such as the capacity to transport people on stretchers.
But Solomianyi says all of those add-ons will be possible if his team decides they're needed. Overall, he says his soldiers already feel much safer doing their patrols than they ever have.
"It is designed in a way, so if you run over a mine and it explodes, people inside will be protected. We have fewer chances of getting injured."